Book Review – Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

There’s an old maxim declaring, “Napoleon is the limit of a madman”; meaning that no person could reach a level of insanity greater than the Emperor’s. After reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 classic, it seems that Elmer Gantry established the limit of human ambition. While earning the nickname “Hell Cat” in his youth, he changed his ways upon reaching adulthood; or so it seemed. Following his ordination as a Baptist minister he attempted a series of careers before finding his true calling. Despite myriad ethical failings, the Reverend Dr. Gantry aspired to be the morality emperor of the world. His quest towards that goal made for one of the finest fictional studies of hypocrisy ever written.

One has to credit Sinclair Lewis. He came up with the greatest opening line in the history of American literature. It’s the one beginning I’ve read that really hooked me. The sentence that followed interested me even further. They read: Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. (Location 52) At that point, I knew then that the book would make for one fascinating read.

Sinclair Lewis’ writing style made me enjoy the story much more. The author utilized a writing technique more common to comedy and horror than literary fiction. He expressed many of his ideas by using a set-up and then a twist at the end. Throughout this novel he applied this method to illustrate the protagonist’s insincerity. Some memorable examples included:

His kiss promised it. His heart almost promised it. (Location 4629)

But the diversions—He thought about it so much that he made a hasty trip to Cato, and came back temporarily cured forever of any desire for wickedness. (Location 1325)

He was certain that he would never again want to guzzle, to follow loose women, to blaspheme; he knew the rapture of salvation—yes, and of being the center of interest in the crowd. (Location 1009)

The best line in the book came from another preacher named Frank Shallard. He delivered an intriguing take on his profession. He observed, What a lying, compromising job this being a minister. (Location 7524)

Mr. Lewis used another unorthodox method to liven the narrative. He included a bit of self-deprecating humor. When one of the characters mentioned a series of contemporary authors he expressed the following thoughts on his own author.

Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis’, Main Street, did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn’t go to literary teas quite as often as he does! – and that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)! (Location 7560)

In The Art of Fiction Ayn Rand cited another one of Lewis’ works, Arrowsmith, for examples of a story that didn’t seem believable. Elmer Gantry contained several instances of this shortcoming, as well. When he decided to attack vice, Elmer became a de facto police lieutenant who led raids. I found his decision to marry too fast. His subsequent boredom with his new bride occurred much too quickly, as well.

I had to admit that while I didn’t find the story credible I still enjoyed reading it. What it lacked in realism it compensated for with entertainment value.

In the book’s beginning, the author wrote: Elmer assumed he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure. (Loc 167) I’m not sure that “getting religion” dissuaded the Reverend Dr. Gantry from that view. He would’ve disagreed, however. As he eloquently preached:

“–and I want to tell you that the fellow eaten by ambition is putting the glories of this world before the glories of Heaven! Oh, if I could only help you understand that it is humility, that it is simple loving kindness, that it is tender loyalty, which alone make the heart glad! Now, if you’ll let me tell a story: It reminds me of two Irishmen named Mike and Pat—“ (Loc 8135)

 

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